In half a dozen public rallies seen in north Karnataka last year, a few lakh people convened to express support for delinking Lingayat dharma from Hinduism.
A social science cliché about the resilience of caste went thus: the Lingayat dharma which emerged as a separate religion to dissolve caste in the 12th century ended up becoming a caste. The recent demands of the Lingayats to be classified as a minority religion outside of Hinduism have shaken up the cliché.
Seen as synonymous in public discussions until recent times, the Veerashaivas and Lingayats found formal self-organisation in the early 20th century as the All-India Veerashaiva Mahasabha. Viewing themselves as Hindus, this body asked, in subsequent decades, that Veerashaivism be considered a separate religion. Their latter request was raised again at the time of the making of the Indian Constitution only to be turned down on the grounds that Shaivism was part of Hinduism.
The idea that Veerashaivism was a separate dharma though stayed alive in scholarly and public discussions. When a request that it be considered a separate religion was placed again before the chief minister Siddaramaiah at a public event last July, he agreed to look into it.
Heated debates on this matter have followed since. In over half a dozen public rallies seen in north Karnataka last year, a few lakh people have convened to express support for delinking Lingayat dharma from Hinduism. A few Lingayat swamijis and Lingayat leaders from the Congress like MB Patil, the Water Resources Minister, Vinay Kulkarni, Minister for Mines and Geology and Basavaraj Horatti, senior JD(S) politician took the lead in mobilizing the demands for a separate religion. The Karnataka government formed the Nagmohan Das Committee two months ago to review the petition.
Numerically preponderant in north Karnataka, but present across Karnataka and in parts of Maharashtra and Telangana, the Lingayats comprise between 11 and 13 per cent of Karnataka’s total population of around 6.5 crores. Roughly 10 per cent of those officially counted as Lingayats constitute the Veerashaivas.
Why do Lingayats wish to distinguish themselves from the Veerashaivas? They hold that the Veerashaivas whose mathas pre-dated Basava’s birth, never respected either Basava or his philosophy. Moreover, the Veerashaivas, who saw themselves as upper castes and cherish orthodox Vedic texts and not the vacanas, kept a social distance from the Lingayats in matters of marriage and other social interactions. Indeed, the Lingayats contend that the Veerashaivas, who initially welcomed Basava’s radical ideas of social equality, gradually abdicated them in favour of more conservative ideas that were accepting of caste and gender inequalities.
The state government’s proposal to the central government does a balancing act in this regard by stating that Lingayats and those Veerashaivas who believe in the primacy of Basava’s philosophy are part of the new religion.
Founded by Basava in the 12th century, the Lingayat dharma set itself as distinct from the existing Brahminical sects, the Jains as well as local “folk” religions. Composed in Kannada, the verse sayings of the Lingayat saints (vacanas) affirm their faith only in Shiva and show a clear rejection of polytheism. Emphasising the importance of bhakti, they reject temple rituals and ask that “disgust” not be shown towards social differences. They also endorse “mystical” ideas of experiencing the world without the mediation of any prior morality. These are, of course, familiar details of the very complex metaphysical universe of the Lingayats.
The course of its 800-year-history has seen dozens of influential mathas emerge across the state. Heads of these institutions have generated an extensive commentarial tradition on the philosophy of Lingayat faith.
The efforts to compile vacanas and ascribe authorship to them began three centuries after Basava founded the Lingayat dharma in the 12th century. A further classification and refinement of this “tradition” happened in the late 19th century and after. In particular, the efforts of P.G. Halakatti in this regard in the early 20th century deserve mention. He drew attention to the equal dignity of all forms of work and of the ideal of caste equality found in the Lingayat tradition to mark its distinctiveness from a Vedic Hinduism that had shown little philosophical interest in such issues.
Recent decades have seen fierce debates over Lingayat dharma and its relation with Hinduism. Those who argued that it was a separate religion and couldn’t be subsumed under Hinduism hold that it was fired by a social egalitarianism that sought the dissolution of caste and upheld gender equality, that it was a self-conscious departure from Vedic orthodoxy. Professor Kalburgi, a devout Lingayat and scholar of Lingayat tradition, who was assassinated three years ago in Dharwar, was passionate about proving that the Lingayat dharma was not part of Hindu dharma. He had faced death threats for his scholarly endeavour in the late 80s itself.
Those arguing that Lingayats are an integral part of Hinduism, like Prof. Chidananda Murthy, point to how ideas of nothingness in the Lingayat tradition derive from the Upanishads and how the ideas of the body draw from the Yoga Sutras. The big question here is of course whether the Upanishads or the Yoga Sutras can be seen as Hindu texts at all. Indeed, demonstrating what makes these texts “Hindu” is the prior task.
While the tag of a religious minority does allow greater freedom in running the very many educational institutions owned by the Lingayat mathas, it would be a mistake to see that as the sole criterion driving their demand for the status of a minority religion. The speeches and writings of the Lingayat swamijis, who have thanked the state government for honouring their request, show a concern with retaining the distinctiveness of their dharma and not let it be assimilated into a generic Hindu dharma.
Fifty-five of the 224 MLAs in Karnataka are from the Lingayat community, most of them from north Karnataka. Since the BJP has found much electoral support from the Lingayats, their anxiety about the latter becoming classified as a non-Hindu religion is not surprising.
While Yeddyurappa, the Lingayat leader and the projected CM candidate for the BJP in Karnataka, has maintained a silence after yesterday’s developments, many of his party colleagues have been accusing the Congress party of dividing Hindus. Political considerations cannot not have mattered for Monday’s cabinet decision, but it is unlikely that the latter would have happened in the absence of strong Lingayat sentiments in favour of being seen as a separate religion.
In any case, this is as good a time as any to remind ourselves, yet again, that history is open-ended. Old religions can be reawakened and new ones born. Hinduism, or any other religion for that matter, is not a closed affair.
The author is a Professor of Sociology at the Azim Premji University in Bengaluru.